Does the Attachment System Towards Owners Change in Aged Dogs?
The bond between humans and dogs has been well studied, yet researchers are always looking to explore new angles of the relationship to deepen our understanding. In this study, the authors examined the emotional bonds between older dogs and their human companions, to explore the type of attachment and see how it compares to bonds formed by younger dogs. Using a modified version of the “Strange Situation Test” and a salival cortisol sampling, the researchers looked at 50 dog/human groups, and found that aged dogs cope less efficiently with emotional distress.
Understanding the connection between humans and dogs has been of interest to science for some time. In this study, the emotional bonds and attachments between aged dogs and their human counterparts is examined. It is said that “attachment defines an enduring relationship with a particular other, which becomes apparent through distinctive behaviour, expressed under stress situations.” Attachment is often studied through observation and by measuring different kinds of physiological reactions, as well as the “Strange Situation Test (SST), originally designed to elicit attachment responses in human infants in conditions of distress. The same methodological approach was later employed in numerous studies concerning dogs’ attachment to humans,” say the researchers, though “no attention has been given to the characteristics of attachment bonds in dogs’ later life.” Of course, getting older affects us all. “Physiological changes during senescence can significantly affect the emotional and relational needs of old individuals,” say the authors, and though “this aspect has been widely studied in humans,” this is new ground in the study of dog behavior.
“The aim of this study was to examine the expression of attachment of aged dogs to their owners in controlled situations by means of a modified version of the Strange Situation Test and analysis of salivary cortisol as a physiological measure of stress.” The SST used was as follows: “the same experimenter, a 30-year-old woman, took part in the test as the unknown person (stranger). The test procedure consisted of a sequence of 2-min episodes, in which the dog could be in the experimental room with the owner [sic], with the stranger, with both of them, or alone.” The researchers found that “in our sample dogs, the behaviour patterns expressed during reunion revealed no differences between groups aged (AG) and adults (AD). This finding comes into conflict with the hypothesis that attachment changes in aged dogs.” They note that these results are a contrast from other studies involving different species. “Individual differences in attachment style, which have been reported in humans and chimpanzees, are always characterised by different behavioural responses, in both reunion and separation from the attachment figure.” But they say that their overall results indicate that “the combination of physiological and behavioural findings of the present study supports the hypothesis that, in later life, dogs cope less efficiently with emotional distress caused by mild social challenge.”
The researchers note that the results “do not clarify the causal relationship of this effect. […] We cannot single out the role of owners in the changed relationship with their aged dogs. Owners may not fully understand the physiological and psychological changes which ageing implies and may fail to modify their way of relating and interacting with their dogs accordingly.” For advocates working with aged dogs, the findings indicate that, perhaps regardless of the actual mechanism involved in the reactions, older dogs need special attention and support for coping with separation anxiety.
Changes during senescence can significantly affect both the emotional and relational needs of old individuals and the characteristics of the attachment system. In order to determine whether the emotional response of dogs is affected by old age, we compared the behavioural parameters of adult (AD b7 years of age, n = 25) and aged (AG ≥7 years of age, n = 25) dogs in a distressing situation, which gives rise to attachment behaviour patterns (Strange Situation Test, SST). The physiological response of dogs was assessed by measurement of salivary cortisol variations in samples collected both at the dogs’ homes and at the study location, before and after the SST. Both groups of dogs expressed clear-cut patterns of attachment to their owners. During the initial part of the procedure, AG dogs sought more physical contact, but behaved more passively and showed less interest in an unknown person during separation from their owners. Compared with AD dogs, AG ones showed a significant increase in salivary cortisol concentrations after the SST. The combination of physiological and behavioural data of the present study supports the hypothesis that, later in life, dogs cope less efficiently with emotional dis- tress caused by mild social challenge.